Your mother is Jewish and from the East Coast in the United States, and she found herself in Mexico City studying, where she met your father. Did you grow up in Mexico City?
Yes, I grew up in Mexico City, where I attended the National University of Mexico. I miss Mexico City very much, but I do get to visit about twice a year because of all the collaborative work I do in Mexico. One of my research projects has been how the geology of Mexico has changed through time, so I go to the field a lot. I also give many lectures in Mexico, and most of my graduate students are from Mexico. I think I've got a reputation in Mexico for being a good mentor, and the kind of studies I do, they are interested in, too. I'm interested in the geochemical evolution of the Earth, particularly how ore deposits form. My specialty is dating rocks.
Was an interest in science always part of your youth? What were your influences?
I always knew that I wanted to be a professor, but for many years, I thought that I would be a philosopher. What I was interested in was the history of science and the philosophy of science. However, at the National University of Mexico, I fell in love with chemistry and later on with geochemistry. I do not remember any real mentor, but I always enjoyed the great professors. The ones I mostly remember are my history and philosophy professors in high school. I also was enthralled by a few of my college chemistry teachers. I think that in my case, my mentors were my family members that loved arts and sciences, so the house ambiance was always very scholarly, even though my parents did not go to college because of financial reasons.
When did you become dean of the College of Science at UA? What did you do before becoming dean at the UA?
I was hired at the University of Arizona as an assistant professor in 1983 after obtaining my Ph.D. from the University of Michigan. After a few years, I became a department head in geosciences, and about six years ago, I became dean of the College of Science, a position I love. ... It is a very distinguished college, so my colleagues are very bright and at the top of their game. Our students are great, too. Sure, we have challenges with budgets from time to time, but being surrounded by bright people makes it exciting.
You've grown a reputation for reaching out to the Spanish-speaking communities and Tucson youth. Why?
I think that as a state-aided university, we must reach out to our community. I also think that a life in science is a wonderful life, and I try to show children how they should consider becoming scientists. It's like being a kid for the rest of your life. It really is. If you want to have a life of trying to figure out how things work, it's very rewarding. ... Also, it is clear that science and technology are shaping our lives, and that it is important that we (Hispanics) get engaged in the future of our world in this way. ... I think it's important to get students to visit the university so that they can see the world in which we do science, and that it's a great life.
You have a science show on a Spanish-speaking radio.
I first had a show on the AM channel of KUAT on Sunday at 2 p.m. That show was cancelled when the producer left. I recently started a show (at 9 a.m. Saturdays) on La Gran D, which is a station (KZLZ FM 105.3) catering to Spanish speakers. The show is called Ciencia con Conciencia, and we try to talk about science issues that are affecting our daily life--such as issues of nutrition, toxicology, global warming and mosquito-driven diseases.
As a Latino in the sciences, do you think you bring a special or needed perspective to the table? How would you describe that?
I think that I can be a role model for students. I also think that I can be a spokesperson for minorities within the scientific and higher education establishment. There's an increase of minorities in science, but they are all going into medicine. What I'm pushing is for students to be interested in the physical sciences. I think most kids think its incredibly boring sitting in a lab with cobwebs. That's where we have to dispel that myth.
Why is it important for departments at the UA to be involved in the community?
Because we are part of the community; because we are partly funded by our community; and because universities should be the example of how communities should operate and behave. I do know that my department happens to make an enormous effort, and that makes me proud. We have a different view here of the ivory tower.